This week marks the first anniversary of the murders at the offices of Charlie Hedbo and at the kosher market in Paris. In does not seem like the world has improved much since then and, as often, religion gets the blame. While much conflict arises along sectarian fault lines, religion should be reclaimed as the human discourse about the spiritual life. As we open our second book of Torah, the book of Shemot, we explore the realm of God as understood in our ancestral story.
In these opening parshiyot, we come across Judaism’s three major ways of understanding how God works in our lives. The first two appear in last week’s parashah, the third in this week’s. First, Judaism defines God as the creator of all existence of which we are part; second, Judaism reasons that as aspects of the infinite, we can communicate on a certain level with it; and thirdly, we have responsibilities toward creation because of our role within it. Traditionally, these three aspects of God are known as Creator, Revealer and Redeemer, and they have been adopted by Christianity and Islam as well. It is incumbent on all our religions together to teach the difference between that which is in “the realm of God” and that which “is in the realm of human.”
Last week, standing at the burning bush, Moshe encounters God for the first time who when asked for a name, says “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh”, which is virtually not translatable but essentially means “I Am that which I Am” or “I Am becoming that which I Am becoming”, or a permutation of those ideas. In other words, Judaism teaches that God is a verb, a form of “to be”, and thus God=Being. I am always puzzled when people say “I do not believe in God.” It is as if one says, “I do not believe in being”, which considering we are being is a hard position to hold. Either all that exists manifested out of nothing, or out of being. In humility, we must at least acknowledge the mystery of it all.
Assuming God is being, and we are part of that being since we exist, then it follows that on one level each of us draws down the smallest aspect of God’s being or consciousness. This is what we mean by God Reveals – as in the communications that happen between God and Moshe, or in a few weeks time, the communication that happens between God and the ancestors of the Jews, the children of Israel who stood at Sinai to receive the commandments. Most of us today question not so much God, or even the possibility that God can communicate with humanity, but the content of the revelation from God to humanity. Outside of Orthodox understandings of religion – no matter what the religion – practitioners choose to follow the received traditions as the valued ancestral attempt to draw down God’s consciousness. The Torah is our story of how we have understood and choose to live that life.
Each religion has its own story. The essence of the story of our ancestors, the path of redemption that we are called to walk, is told at the beginning of this week’s parashah, where God again reveals in a speech to Moses that famous passage that makes its way to our Haggadah and forms the basis of the four cups of wine plus the cup of Elijah. God tell Moshe (and the children of Israel), “I will free you…I will deliver you…I will redeem you…and I will take you … and I will bring you into the land.” In other words, the crucial event of our past is the being freed from the slavery in Egypt in order to come to the land of Israel where we are to serve God as a model nation. We can always discuss the finer parts of the story, the details of what has been revealed, but we should understand that our conversation is not as much about God Itself, as to what it means to serve God. Each individual has his or her way; each people its. These crucial stories at the beginning of Exodus establish that the story of Israel is one that takes us from servitude to humans to service to God, and thus humanity and life.
Whenever anything is done that is in disservice to humanity, and destructive of life, it cannot be in the service of God. More than ever, we need to clarify that point so that we do not blame religion for the horrible things that humans do. Rather, religion should be understood by each of us as a path toward service in life, a way of engaging in conscious being.